World's top luxury group LVMH head Bernard Arnault presents the group's annual results 2022 in Paris on January 26, 2023

How Napoleon won in the end

British business leaders have much to learn from their shrewd French counterparts


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Cote d’Azur

Reports of the death of the Fifth Republic have been greatly exaggerated. There are no pyramids of moutons morts blocking the Grande Corniche. The gilets jaunes whistle cheerfully as they jet-wash the paving stones of the Promenade des Anglais. And the only fire I have encountered is the one used to flame-grill the delicious Provençal octopus served at my local bistro. — Ned

We British love to gloat over the moments of collective dyspepsia which erupt periodically among our Gallic neighbours. In clubland, the talk is always that the French need a Thatcher to shake themselves from their dirigiste complacency. 

In France, many on the Left distrust President Macron because of his Rothschild career and natural ease in the world of international capital — and they are quietly willing him to fail. However, the current row over retirement ages is not, in fact, a sign of France’s national failure, but more a symptom of the long-term success of its highly disciplined political and business elite.

Like it or not, if we are to regain our own national mojo, we have much to learn from the Gauls

Britain is not having these same debates about pensions for the simple fact we have have stopped living longer. Hardly a month goes by without another life insurance company saying that it will pay capital back to shareholders because the actuaries have calculated future annuity liabilities will be lower than previously forecast. The inexorable rise in life spans which began with the industrial revolution first slowed, then plateaued, and now, by some measures, has gone into reverse.

Contrast our national malaise with the French. After the Second World War, French life expectancy overtook the British and, for decades now, they have consistently been living an average of two years longer than us — and the gap is growing. I have seen one or two quack explanations: the life-giving properties of a tannic glass of claret, for instance. But the real reason, I suspect, is the consistent ability of the French establishment to deliver a better balance of prosperity and public services to its people.

This is down to the fact that France does elitism properly. In my dealings with French business leaders over the years, I have always found myself outfoxed when they were on the other side of the trade and grateful when they were on the same team. 

While it is French intellectuals like Foucault and Derrida who are ultimately responsible for the silliness now corroding Anglo-Saxon universities, no graduate of the Grandes Écoles I have met has any truck any with this nonsense. 

While our gilded youth waft around the fairy-tale castles of the Fens, France’s brightest and best gravitate to Paris, one of the world’s great commercial entrepôts. And what characterises the products of these austere Napoleonic institutions is a command of hard strategy that would make the great general proud.

This ability is most apparent in the Francophone CEOs who have crossed the Channel to lead our own national treasures. During his tenure at the London Stock Exchange, Xavier Rolet turned a sub-scale local operation into  global fintech powerhouse, growing the market capitalisation from £800 million to £14 billion. 

As chief executive of Prudential, Tidjane Thiam, Ivorian-born and educated at the École Polytechnique, saw the opportunity to pivot the fusty City institution into a fast-growing play on the Asian economic miracle. 

It is interesting too to compare the composition of the FTSE 100 and its French equivalent, the CAC 40. The upper reaches of the London index are dominated by imperial legacy firms in genteel decline such as British American Tobacco, Rio Tinto and BP (the former Anglo- Persian Oil Company). 

We have nothing to compare with the all-conquering luxury goods house LVMH, which recently became the first European company to be worth more than 500 million euros. 

Its visionary chairman Bernaud Arnault, like Thiam, devised a winning strategy to capitalise on the eastward shift in the global centre of gravity. This success, and others like it, have combined to make the Paris stock market larger than London’s for the first time in recorded history.

What is most remarkable is the way this rigorous business elite interacts with the political leadership to sell “France S.A.” internationally. Shortly after Brexit, a banker friend attended a pitch from Macron and his administration to invest in Paris. “It was like a super-slick capital markets day from a go-go tech business — but done on a national scale,” he recalled. 

“Every minister was on-message, one presentation building effortlessly to the next. Even the transitions had been carefully rehearsed. I can’t imagine any British government pulling off such a feat.” 

People scoffed at the time that Parisians were too lazy and rude to woo firms from London. But fast-forward seven years and the French capital is the number one EU beneficiary of the inevitable exodus of City jobs.

Of course, things aren’t perfect. The rise of the far Right and the far Left continues to threaten the settled order. And the cost of a sunbed on the beaches of Cap Ferrat is hardly inclusive. Yet, like it or not, if we are to regain our own national mojo, we have much to learn from the Gauls. 

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